I am fifteen minutes early for my meeting with Cornelia at her London hotel, so bringing her morning writing session to a premature close. Guilt-stricken, I wonder what new idea I may have aborted from this most imaginative of authors. Can it still be retrieved after I have gone?
‘Don’t worry; I was only revising. I love to write but now I am on my fourth revision, so I’m quite glad of a break!’
I am slightly surprised to hear that Cornelia spends so much time revising. Her literary output over the last 20 years has been nothing less than stupendous. Author of over 40 children’s books in Germany, she has now hit international big time first with The Thief Lord and since with Inkheart and Inkspell , the first two best-selling books of a planned trilogy. And these are no short novels; the Inkheart sequence to date runs to over 1200 pages. Also a hands-on producer for the film version of Inkheart , currently being shot with a budget running into the millions, and still in demand as a mother to her two school age children, it is a wonder she finds any time for writing at all, let alone revising. How does she do it?
‘Writing comes easily to me. Like in Narnia, I simply have to open the door of the wardrobe and then describe what I see. I never know how a story is going to end – that would be boring! So I am in the position of telling the story to myself as well as to my readers.’
Cornelia suffered a personal tragedy recently when her husband died very suddenly of cancer. He had played a huge part in making her life as an author and mother easier, and the loss is great. But this former social-worker turned illustrator turned novelist is not someone who gives up easily. Tall, attractive and with a warm personality, she radiates energy. She is also someone who remains totally in love with books. Her Inkheart novels are intertextual throughout, with quotations from different authors ranging from David Almond to T H White at the head of each chapter, along with many references to other writers within the text. The trilogy is also intratextual, with the second volume frequently referring back to what has gone on before in the first one.
But over and above this literary background, her Inkheart trilogy celebrates the sheer power, excitement and occasional danger implicit in the act of reading itself. It features young Meggie and her gentle bookbinder father Mo. He is such a magical storyteller that he can actually make characters step out of a novel and become real. This gift eventually puts him and his family into terrible danger after a repellant fictional villain is also brought to life. The second volume, Inkspell , to an extent reverses this situation. This time Meggie leaves her contemporary world in order to enter into a story, with the hope that once there she can help re-write the plot in it a more favourable way particularly for Farid. He is a boy unwittingly brought to life by Mo while reading out aloud the Tales of the Arabian Nights . Now adrift in reality, Farid is anxious to re-enter a story in search of his mysterious master Dustfinger, who is also obsessed by a story that he wishes to escape to.
So why this passionate engagement with reading at a time when there are so many other demands upon children’s imagination? Cornelia pauses for just a moment before answering with all the easy fluency also found in her writing.
‘You know, I used always to feel that reading was a bit of a spooky act. The way it helps you escape from reality, for example, and the strange effect it can sometimes have upon people. But writing Inkheart allowed me at last to come to terms with the fact that I am a genuine, unapologetic addict of reading, a real book-eater. I can now admit openly that I have always been fascinated by everything about reading and readers, from bibliophiles to book thieves and even the occasional book murderers – those who have taken someone else’s life in order to get their hands on a special copy. But although I remain totally involved with favourite novels, I had never before taken the imaginative step of actually having a reader enter into storyland itself. Writing the Inkheart trilogy has allowed me to do this, and I have loved every minute of it! In the third part, which I am working on now, I am asking different questions. Do characters want to re-write the story they are in or are they happy to follow in the steps that have already been created for them? With each decision, more questions pop up, and all the time I continue to learn more about reading, which is what I constantly want to do.’
A story about a story involving imaginary characters some of whom are very much more bookish than others could soon become complicated. But expertly translated by Anthea Bell, these novels are easy to read and full of incident. Kidnappings, near escapes, arson attacks, murderous threats, last minute rescues, magical instruments, young characters on the run – all the ingredients for a rousing story are present. Parent characters who are normally packed off at the start of ordinary, earth-bound adventure stories for fear of getting in the way are now allowed to stay. For while they are expected to exert some control over events in the fictional lives of child characters set in the real world, in fantasyland parents along with the rest of their families are often up against forces that no-one can do anything about at all. Meggie’s father Mo therefore can play a crucial role in these books without ever coming over as a negligent parent for not being able to protect his daughter more than he does. In fact, his relationship with Meggie forms the emotional core for the whole trilogy, drawing much of its strength from Cornelia’s feelings for her own father, still alive and a pivotal influence in her early life.
But although there is always plenty of danger and excitement in her stories, Cornelia usually stops short at extreme violence. Villains and their henchmen are normally spared rather than killed off. Is this because she is writing for children, conveying the message that mercy is usually preferable to revenge?
‘I do get rid of some of my worst villains! But I am also anxious not to make evil look in any way glorious, and forgiveness is always more diminishing for a villain than dispatching them after some tremendous fight. If you look at the genuine villains in history, they are mostly crippled, boring, strange creatures, whose knowledge of their own inadequacies made them even meaner. And sadly, they tend to live very long, often dying in their beds at around 90. They do not by any means always get their just rewards, so perhaps this is something fiction too should start looking at, rather than going along with daydreams of unreal, total victories of the good over the bad.’
Thief Lord and Dragon Rider , Cornelia’s two previous best-selling titles, were both stand-alone stories. ‘With them, I knew when they were truly finished. To readers who ask what happens to this or that character after the book is finished I always say “Don’t know; try working it out for yourself.” But with Inkheart , although I planned just one book the characters just wouldn’t let me go. This has never happened to me before. So I opened the door in the wardrobe for a second time, and found a completely new story there. And when this book turned out to have a really nasty ending, I knew there had to be a third part. But that will be all; it is hard not to repeat myself – not in what characters do, but in the emotions they have. So this final part of the trilogy is easily the most challenging for me, since I have already used up so many motives and feelings.’
Cornelia is now researching a novel set in and around Salisbury cathedral. How do writers of fantasy set about research? What exactly are they looking for?
‘Well, when I went into this enchanting building for the first time I knew immediately that it had a special meaning for me. So I said to myself, ‘My God, perhaps there is a novel here for me too.’ So I straightaway started collecting stories about the cathedral – who was buried there, what else had happened, were there any special ghost stories associated with it. I am not sure I will write a historical story involving all this – that really would involve a lot of research. It will probably have a nowadays child at the centre who somehow interacts with all the history going on around her. I don’t really know yet, but I think the story is there all right.’
Cornelia has described herself as ‘a spy for children.’ What exactly does she mean by this?
‘It means that although I am a 47-year-old woman, I still feel like a girl wearing a grown-up disguise. I can sit down with my 11-year-old son and join in exactly his sort of fun. While I know other writers who are impressed by awards and honours, I myself remain utterly bored by all that – just as a small child would. I often can’t take seriously what else my fellow adults are doing and saying. In that way, I still feel like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes , always just about to shout out “Look – he’s not wearing anything!” Of course I have adult friends and interests too, but as a writer I often feel I am reporting through the eyes of a child on how they feel and think about themselves, their parents and everything else under the sun.’
It is time to stop. Cornelia signs my copies of her books with a flourish, adding a small line drawing of the type she continues to provide as chapter headings for her novels. Then back to her room for more writing and revising while still thinking about the new novel as yet unwritten. I meanwhile stagger to the hotel door, my arm straining with the weight of her four heaviest novels packed away in my case but also buoyed up by having talked to such a charming, intelligent and open-minded person.
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.
(published by The Chicken House)
1 904442 93 5, £5.99 pbk (4+)
The Princess Knight
1 904442 14 5, £5.99 pbk (4+)
The Wildest Brother
1 905294 03 4, £10.99 hbk (4+)
1 904442 48 X, £6.99 pbk (8+)
The Thief Lord
1 905294 21 2, £6.99 pbk (9+)
1 904442 21 8, £6.99 pbk (10+)
1 904442 83 8, £6.99 pbk (10+)
When Santa Fell to Earth
1 905294 14 X, £9.99 hbk (8+, October 2006)